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Chef Corey Lee: Benu, in San Francisco
At Benu, James Beard Award-winning chef Corey Lee’s first solo restaurant, which opened last August in San Francisco, each intricately prepared dish is so exacting, so considered, and so nuanced in flavor that to talk while eating— “mmm”, “woah” and other involuntary expressions of sensual pleasure aside—would be far too distracting. Fully appreciating the subtleties of each dish requires a certain meditative state, which is encouraged even before you pick up a fork: the modernist, cement courtyard outside, planted with symmetrical Japanese maples, calls to mind a Zen temple garden; the minimalistic, neutral-toned dining room—grey carpeting, grey padded chairs, bare grey-colored walls—achieves the serenity of a day spa.
My treatment: first, some crisp, delicate, toasted buckwheat and nori wafers, served in a specially designed slotted box, so each stands upright. A canapé —quail egg, light citrus juice, star anise—comes with a thin bubble of ginger juice (the membrane is acquired through a trick of molecular gastronomy) that explodes as a refreshing tingle inside the mouth. “It kind of wakes you up a little bit,” Lee later told me. “It sets the tone, and is a playful thing for your first bite.” The rest of the meal unfolded with similar gusto, dish after dish exhibiting intriguing texture and complex flavor—thin eel wrapped in flaky pastry, dipped in lime-salted crème fraiche; sea urchin with creamy sunchokes, prepared like panna cotta, and topped with vibrant green apple ice. Some creations are reinterpretations of Asian classics: in Lee’s “duck with eight treasures” ($28), the meat is rolled around foie gras, duck confit, gizzards, black truffle puree, pistachios and goji berries and then wrapped in crispy skin. The roll is halved, presented like two maki pieces, and sprinkled with gold leaf flakes (the eighth treasure). Knowledgeable servers work efficiently between courses, setting clean utensils on a polished wood orb. Each dish is served in customized porcelain plate ware. Delicious house-made chocolates–white chocolate and green tea, Vietnamese coffee and sweetened condensed milk—arrive for dessert in a wood jewel box. The bowl housing orange curd and pistachio ice cream, which is topped with Tasmanian peppercorn foam, is shaped in a way that hides warm vanilla tapioca as a surprise for the spoon to uncover.
Later, I had a chance to speak with Chef Lee about his cuisine and influences.